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With thinner crowds in a smaller space, Fiesta Broadway feels deeply diminished

With thinner crowds in a smaller space, Fiesta Broadway feels deeply diminished
A crowd assembles in front of the main stage at the 27th Fiesta Broadway event in downtown Los Angeles. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It was 22 years ago that police officers fired rubber bullets into brawling crowds at Fiesta Broadway, bringing an early end to a packed festival that a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman would later say suffered from "too many people, not enough space."

Today Fiesta Broadway, a Cinco de Mayo celebration held downtown on the last weekend in April, has other problems. Big crowds aren't among them.

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As the festival got underway for its 27th year Sunday, it was hard not to notice the change at an event that is in several senses smaller. The fiesta used to cover 36 blocks, centered on a long stretch of Broadway converted into an urban midway, with carnival booths and stages for musical acts. This year, construction on 2nd Street by the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority truncated the event to six blocks around the Civic Center.

Even that modest space was not especially crowded, suggesting a deeper diminishment.

The makeover undergone in recent years by Broadway and downtown L.A. has been hailed by many as a success story. But it is also a story of loss and of gentrification at its most jarringly obvious, as high-rent condos and slow-pour coffee stands spread through a neighborhood once dominated by discount department stores, commercial wedding chapels and boutiques selling quinceañera dresses.

If Fiesta Broadway's popularity once showed this neighborhood's importance to the Latin American immigrants who brought life to a largely derelict downtown in the 1970s and '80s, its sedate tone today points to those immigrants' gradual replacement by a downtown population that is richer, whiter and perhaps less inclined to spend a Sunday afternoon listening to Mexican pop music over elotes and shaved ice.

Anthony Figueroa, 18, said he had been coming with his family to Fiesta Broadway for the last five years. During that time, he said, they've witnessed the festival grow quieter, with the crowds that used to throng downtown steadily dwindling.

"We were talking about it on the ride here — that we noticed there wasn't as many activities and it seemed a bit smaller," Figueroa said Sunday as he walked down a closed-off section of 1st Street in front of City Hall. In the past, he said, "it felt a bit more populated, I guess."

He said he still comes to the event because his parents like it. "Solo, I probably wouldn't," he said.

David Sanchez, who visited the festival for the first time Sunday to hand out literature for his Fontana church, had heard about the large crowds that could be found at Fiesta Broadway in its heyday. He said he was surprised to find just six small blocks that were a long way from filling up.

"We're kind of surprised at how empty it is," Sanchez said. "It just seems like there's not a whole lot of families out here."

Patricia Lujar said she hadn't had many customers at her concession for tortas, aguas frescas and bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

"The business is going really slow this year," she said. "I see a lot of people, but they're not stopping by."

Yuji Sugiyama, 30, works at a bank downtown but rarely visits on the weekend.

"I came to this country 11 years ago," said Sugiyama, who is from Japan. "Downtown was dead. There was no L.A. Live. There were no apartments."

Since then, he said, things have changed. "For millennials, downtown is kind of hot right now."

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On Sunday, Sugiyama made an exception to his routine and decided to attend Fiesta Broadway for the first time. He took the Expo Line from his Culver City home to downtown, expecting to find a crowd of 300,000 similar to those he had read about in years past.

At lunchtime, he stood at 1st and Broadway.

"It looks much smaller," he said.

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